How to Photograph Water

Photographing waterfalls presents the photographer with the opportunity to create some very creative shots. When photographed properly, you can make running water appear soft and almost ghost-like.

water photography

“Cataract Falls, Fairfax CA” captured by Cliff Briggin

This technique is not difficult to master, but it takes a fair amount of stamina and perseverance to achieve—not to mention some physical agility.

This technique is best suited for cameras that have the ability to manually adjust the shutter speed and focus. Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) cameras are best equipped for this type of setup, but quality point-and-shoot cameras may work just as well.

Shutter Speed

In order to create the soft, flowing appearance, the camera must be set to either manual or shutter priority mode. By using shutter priority, the photographer can adjust the shutter to a slow speed while the camera adjusts the aperture settings automatically. Since we will be working with slow shutter speeds, stabilization is critical for this type of shot, which presents a unique challenge in itself. Flowing streams and waterfalls are generally located along rugged terrain, and carrying additional equipment may be difficult, if not hazardous. As an alternative, a couple of bean bags placed on an available stable surface may be adequate and certainly much easier to carry.

Once you locate a body of moving water you’d like to photograph, set your camera to shutter priority mode as described above (see the article on shutter priority for more detail). You will need to shoot at a slow shutter speed in order to create the illusion of motion in your photograph. Begin with a relatively slow shutter speed, perhaps about 1/8 of a second. You may need to experiment with the shutter speed to create the effect you need, depending upon the available light and the speed of the moving water.

flowing water photography

“Cat Bay” captured by Jim Worrall

Whenever you shoot at slow shutter speeds, there is an increased risk of introducing camera shake. Even the slightest vibration, such as releasing the shutter, can create a shaky photograph. One way to overcome this risk is to use the camera’s self timer in lieu of manually depressing the shutter release button. Using the timer is just one way you can increase the chance of creating a great shot.

Bracketing

Many DSLRs and some point-and-shoot cameras are equipped with a bracketing feature. Bracketing allows your camera to capture sequential shots in burst mode at various shutter speeds. The advantage of using bracketing is speed. You will be able to capture more shots in a shorter period without having to adjust the shutter speed between shots.

photo of waterfall

“FAXI” captured by Ævar Guðmundsson

The disadvantage is that you will not be able to use the automatic timer, since bracketing requires you to switch to burst mode and maintain a depressed shutter during the shoot. An alternative is to use a remote shutter release if at all possible. This will not only allow you to avoid introducing camera shake, but you will be able to keep your feet dry as well.

Focus

This type of shot is best suited for manual focus for several reasons. Since you’ll be shooting a moving object, the camera may attempt to focus on the a floating stick or the water itself. This will also allow you to concentrate on water moving over rocks or areas where white caps are generated by the moving water.

About the Author:
Peter Timko writes for Proud Photography (http://www.proudphotography.com/), an online photography school.

For further training, here is a helpful video workshop:

The video shares some more great tips provided during a waterfall photography workshop in Western North Carolina.

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8 responses to “How to Photograph Water”

  1. Greyfox Studios says:

    If you don’t mind taking water photos that ends with the water looking as if it’s been frozen, that’s fine, but I prefer water that includes the element of the what water is, what water does. Water moves, it explodes with endless details as it crashes into the rocks, conforms to the contour of a creek or stream bed. You want, or at least I do, capture the details of moving water. I want then viewer to be there, to not only see the crashing water but to hear it.

    Slow shutter speeds moving shooting water, really?

  2. Great works……………………….!

  3. Kathy says:

    Beautiful photos. Ethereal. Thank you for the detailed explanation on how to achieve the same results.

  4. Vegar says:

    Also, if the desieed shutter speed is hard to achieve due to too much available light, use a ND-filter.

  5. Marcelo says:

    Would be interesting to mention ND filters…

  6. Elizabeth Schott says:

    Doesn’t matter how hard I try to like a photo where the waterfall looks like cotton candy, it just doesn’t work. For me, an otherwise awesome photo is not awesome when the water looks like unrealistic, cotton candy.

  7. Cliff Briggin says:

    The top photo I took along time ago. I bracketed 3 exposures. I do less bracketing now and take more different exposure and decide later what shutter speed looks good. Some water falls look great when you freeze the water More realistic. I lean towards the silky waterfall. It just depends what your looking for.

  8. Gordon Betsill says:

    I’ m also one of those people who like to see water in action whether it be a waterfall or at a beach.
    Millions of people go to beaches to see the waves, not silk or no waves at all.

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